Open Book

Assessing the New ‘Energy’ Therapies

We still don't know why they work, or if they really do

Eric McCollum
Magazine Issue
May/June 2001
Assessing the New ‘Energy’ Therapies

Finding the Energy to Heal

By Maggie Phillips

W. W. Norton. 233 pp. ISBN: 0-393-70326-6

Reading about the techniques being promoted on the psychotherapy workshop circuit these days is a little like cleaning up a spilt bowl of alphabet soup. All kinds of new therapies are being touted, most of them identified by acronym. There’s EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), TFT (Thought Field Therapy) and EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques). These approaches, and many others, are part of a loosely defined movement congregating under the banners of “energy therapies” or “mindbody techniques.” In Finding the Energy to Heal, psychologist Maggie Phillips promises us a road map through this new territory. Phillips claims to integrate traditional psychological understandings of clients’ difficulties–attachment wounds or childhood trauma, for instance–with “special tools to activate energy shifts that can rebalance the mindbody system,” and thereby resolve the past trauma.

According to Phillips, EMDR, TFT, therapeutic massage and hypnotic imagery techniques can help to dissolve energy blockages in the body that have resulted from past trauma. When energy is freed, the trauma is resolved and a profound transformation of symptoms is made possible. While this is an intriguing proposal, and one that is increasingly popular with clinicians, Phillips fails to take it to the level that makes a credible case.

The book is not without strengths. Phillips provides concise and lucid descriptions of a range of new therapeutic techniques. In describing EMDR, for example, she tells us how she helps clients settle on a conflict-free target image (a sunny day at the beach, perhaps); and then “installs” that image using the lateral eye movements. The conflict-free target serves as both the image of success, and as a “safe zone” to which a client can retreat when examining the symptom (anxiety about episodes of dizziness, for instance, in one of Phillips’s examples) becomes too stressful. As clients imagine themselves in the stressful situation and continue the lateral eye movements, the underlying cognitions and repressed experiences that contribute to the stress come spontaneously into awareness. The client re-experiences these thoughts and feelings while in the “safe zone,” and they lose their symptomatic power.

In addition to describing the techniques, Phillips provides compelling clinical stories that suggest that some of the therapies can be used more widely than previously supposed. EMDR and TFT, for instance, have been used primarily to treat trauma patients. However, Phillips has used these techniques in treating clients with migraine headaches, pain, radiation-induced nausea and other physical ailments. By focusing on the importance of ameliorating physical symptoms, she reminds us how intricately mind and body are intertwined.

Despite its strengths, however, there are troubling holes in Finding the Energy to Heal. While EMDR has been studied more extensively than have the other therapies, there is currently intense debate about whether it works and, if it does, whether eye movement has anything to do with its success. Meanwhile, TFT and the other approaches discussed in the book have barely been studied at all. Yet by ignoring the controversy swirling around these techniques, Phillips undermines her credibility. Even if research evidence is lacking, or controversial, evaluating what is there and acknowledging the need for more would make the book more evenhanded.

At a more fundamental level, Finding the Energy to Heal doesn’t establish a relationship among the techniques Phillips uses. She initially claims that these approaches all share a focus on the body’s “energy systems.” (It should be noted that even the existence of such systems is in doubt.) Later, however, she admits that neither imagery nor hypnosis directly affect the body’s energy. Such fuzziness makes her schemas for combining these techniques seem arbitrary, and dependent primarily on the experience of the therapist. Thoughtful integration demands more than a simple set of tools, however, and the advice about how to use them. We need an underlying conceptual framework to guide us, especially when we face novel situations. Unfortunately, we don’t find it here.

Finding the Energy to Heal will appeal to those who are already convinced that energy therapies are the wave of the future. The rest of us, whose curiosity may be piqued but who remain skeptical, must await a more critical and thoroughgoing work.


Eric McCollum, Ph.D., is an associate professor and clinical director at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s MFT training program in Falls Church, Virginia. Address: FCD Department, Northern Virginia Center, 7054 Haycock Road, Falls Church, VA 22043; e-mail address: Letters to the Editor about this department may be e-mailed to


New and Noteworthy

Reviewed by Jim Naughton


Depression in Context: Strategies for Guided Action

By Christopher R. Martell, Michael E. Addis, Neil S. Jacobson

W. W. Norton. 197 pp. ISBN: 0-393-70350-9

The authors are proponents of Behavior Activation, an approach toward treating depression that emphasizes changing behaviors and altering external circumstances over plumbing a client’s thoughts and feelings. Depression, they argue is not a defect, not an entity inside a person, but an understandable, even predictable response to situations in which an individual receives no positive reinforcement. Fortunately for clinicians, this book was not written to defend that thesis, but to explain techniques based upon it.

Martell, Addis and the late Jacobson emphasize the importance of external circumstances in understanding depression. They argue that melancholy is the rational response of individuals whose lives are devoid of positive reinforcement. To combat this condition they suggest experimenting with a variety of behavioral approaches and responses, assessing the strengths and limitations of each. The sections on dealing with ruminative thinking and enlisting the help of significant others are especially good.

Though it wears its behaviorist allegiance on its sleeve, Depression in Context deserves a broader audience. Even if you believe that behaviorism merely treats symptoms, you’ll be glad to have a broader repertoire the next time that treating symptoms is a prerequisite to further progress.


The Problem of Evil

By Eric Greenleaf

Zeig, Tucker & Theisen. 272 pp. ISBN: 1-891-94441-X

This book doesn’t deliver on the promise of its title. (Not even the Book of Job delivered fully on this promise.) But you will be richer for reading it because Greenleaf throws off a shower of intellectual sparks, many of which illuminate the importance of images that emerge from the unconscious in dreams and hypnotherapy. In addition, his command of the history of therapy gives this book an intellectual ballast that most books on therapy lack.

The book is somewhat disjointed, and crowded with more ideas than can be fully explored. But taken in small doses, it works like intellectual caffeine on the complacent therapeutic mind. Proponents of humanistic psychology will be especially interested in the way Greenleaf fuses family therapy, Jungian psychology and the teaching of Milton Erickson, his mentor.

Greenleaf has a compelling way with a case study, due in part to his commitment to capturing the rhythms of human speech in print. While this may seem a strictly literary matter, it makes his interventions more specific, and more credible. Perhaps most important, his studies illustrate how therapists can help clients understand the healing potential of the vaguest image or the most surreal dream.


The Thaw: 24 Essays in Psychotherapy

By Paul Genova

Dorrance. 135 pp. ISBN: 0-805-95020-6

The Thaw brings to mind Holden Caulfield’s observation that sometimes when you finish a book you wish the author were a friend of yours, so you could spend more time with him. Genova’s writing is insightful and self-effacing. He’s an intellectual, but not a pedant, and he’s got a nice, cerebral sense of humor. Since he’s writing for therapists, he’s willing to talk about experiences that therapists don’t address in the books that they hope will get them on Oprah, such as being intimidated by a client’s intellect, or becoming weary of the limited range of solutions that can be pulled out of one’s therapeutic bag of tricks.

That said, The Thaw, which takes its title from a Cree poem about the rescue of a frozen goose, is a bit thin. The essays originally appeared as columns in Psychiatric Times and Voices, the journal of the American Academy of Psychotherapists. Many of them would have been stronger had they been expanded for inclusion in this collection. Frequently, they read like stimulating but truncated conversations. Reading this book makes you fairly certain that Genova has the capacity to write a better one.


The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers

By Daniel L. Schacter

Houghton Mifflin. 206 pp. ISBN: 0-618-04019-6

What William James said of his brother Henry might also be said of Daniel Schacter. In The Seven Sins of Memory, he’s chewed more than he has bitten off. His thesis–that memory’s vices are also its virtues–is not particularly compelling, but in defending it, he puts on an engaging display of erudition that brings the reader up to date on the latest developments in the study of memory, consciousness and brain science in general. Like Schacter’s previous book Searching for Memory, Seven Sins is gracefully written and essential to practitioners who want to understand the capacities and limitations of the remembering brain.


Going Inside: A Tour Round a Single Moment of Consciousness

By John McCrone

Fromm. 312 pp. ISBN: 0-880-64262-9

McCrone is attempting to do for the scientific study of consciousness what James Glieck did for chaos theory. But his effort to popularize this difficult subject is handicapped by the disparate nature of his story. There is no towering figure, no epoch-initiating breakthrough around which to organize the narrative. As a result the narrative lacks the momentum required to sustain the interest of an educated lay reader–and on a topic this complex, almost all of us are lay readers. Those who are especially motivated to understand the study of consciousness will find this a useful book, however. McCrone has a friendly, unobtrusive writing style. He is thorough, his exposition of intricate research has impressive clarity, and he rescues from anonymity some of the pioneers in the field. If you know enough brain science to understand the significance of incremental advances, Going Inside may resonate with you; if not, you may want to wait for a more context-conscious writer.